I hear he used to say “nice.” I hear he loved wine, to cook, to make soup. I hear he loved to ski. A decade later, I can still remember exactly what I was doing when the news came across Eurosport. Sitting in my apartment in Bern, Switzerland, 375km away, the words rang out, “Two Americans killed in La Grave skiing accident.” I had no idea how much this accident would play into my life.
In 2010, I made my first trip to La Grave, France, five years before beginning formal training with the American Mountain Guides Association. After being awarded the 2017 Chad Vander Ham Memorial Scholarship, I decided to return to La Grave. At first, this return was about training for the upcoming ski exam, but quickly became something more meaningful as I connected with a group of friends and colleagues immersed in mountain culture. Under the tutelage of IFMGA Guide Joe Vallone, one of Chad’s best friends, there was definitive transformation in my ability to guide in a fast paced big mountain environment with tactics and techniques I’d never been exposed to.
Eleven years to the day of Chad’s passing, I arrived in Valdez, Alaska with the other candidates for the AMGA Ski Guides Exam. We were thankfully greeted with seemingly endless high pressure and a stable snowpack, spending the days leading up to the exam touring various zones. The Worthington Glacier, Acapulco, Stairway, and RFS delivered great skiing and allowed us to talk though managing transitional and group management challenges likely to be presented by examiners Mike Soucy and Erik Leidecker.
The first three days of the exam we day toured around Thompson Pass, chalked with varied challenges and fun skiing. These tours were great to see everyone’s guiding style. Guiding guides is challenging with a strong group of skiers. We tend to move faster and make assumptions instead of taking direction. Nobody wanted to sound condescending while guiding, so we all agreed to play convincing clients to help each other stay “in role”
The next three days began with a heli drop from Valdez Heli Skiing Guides, descending 3000 feet with overnight packs to the Tsina Glacier. From here we had twenty-seven miles of open canvas including the Tonsina Glacier and the Valdez Glacier, eventually terminating near the Valdez Airport. With general parameters, we made exciting descents on steep Alaskan faces and continued to cover the miles necessary for our arrival in Valdez. Pacing, scouting, group and time management were the name of the game. Energy and stoke stayed high, even while we made our way on foot, sometimes plunging knee deep in tarns, and destroying ski boot soles down the broken Valdez Glacier and in to town.
It’s challenging for examiners to remain objective. We are usually our own harshest critics, the examiners, Mike and Erik, did a great job delivering non-contrived challenges with constructive feedback. It was important to understand this exam is as much about assessment as education. It is possible this is the last time some of us work under the direct supervision of highly experienced instructors, though I intend to continue harassing a few mentors into skiing with me.
Today I received a call from Erik Leidecker congratulating me on passing the Ski Guides Exam. I’m ecstatic and grateful to everyone that has supported me over the last two years. My gratitude is extended to all the people in La Grave I was privileged to spend time with in the mountains. You, the friends and family of Chad, with the generosity of this scholarship made becoming an AMGA Certified Ski Guide possible.